/ Features E. Stephen Burnett

‘Ranger Bill’: A Cynical Memory, Defeated

“Oh, great, just another example of Christians making such painfully cheesy stuff”? Shut up, brain.
| Feb 19, 2019 | 4 comments |

Last week I experienced an painful and random memory: that of a Christian-made children’s radio program called “Ranger Bill.”

It must have been in the early 1990s that I listened to this. Probably on a Christian FM radio station. In or near Ashland, Kentucky. On a Saturday morning when the station was doing its best to provide an Alternative for Saturday morning cartoons.

The year was ~1993, but the program sounded like a radio drama from seventy years earlier.1

Transcribed from my mental MP3:

(thunder crash)

TIN-CANNED ANNOUNCER:

“Raaaannnn-gerrr Bill!
Warrior of the woodland!”

(secondary thunder crash)

This intro was followed by a secondary announcer. He described how Ranger Bill fulfills his ranger duties. He battles against extreme odds and traveling dangerous trails. Where? In the air. On horseback. Or in a screaming squad car. Each cited feature was accompanied by beneficial sound effects.

And why, you ask, does Ranger Bill do all these feats? All for the satisfaction and pride of a job well done.

(a series of notes is squirted from
the most comical organ imaginable)

I didn’t remember the plots. I only recall over-acting, over-seriousness, and a Comical Old Geezer Character.

If I don’t remember much, then why did I find this memory painful? Because it came with a cynical thought. Something like this:

“Oh, great. Here’s another example of Christians making such painfully cheesy stuff. This old-tyme radio drama didn’t help anyone. It didn’t get anyone Saved. It likely did little to advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ with artistic, creative excellence.”

I’m glad to report that, almost instantly, my mind turned on itself. I had a better series of thoughts like this:

  • Horseradish.
  • You have no idea of their budget or creative limits.
  • You don’t even know what the original audience would have expected.
  • You’re falsely judging other people (presumably Christian sisters and brothers).
  • This was a different era. Even a “retro” audio drama may have met its own creative standard.
  • Technically, you were barely in the intended audience then. You’re definitely not in the audience now.
  • Christians have made many fantastic audio dramas. Years later, they hold up very well. For example, see, Josiah DeGraaf’s retrospective on the long-running series Adventures in Odyssey.
  • So stop. Being. So. Silly.

Sure, Christians have done silly things. Some have even done worse things. And it’s okay to point out problems, or even to criticize.

But if we remember these old things, let’s not cringe or act like the Cool Kids will shun us.

As if we’re the stereotypical teenager who’s embarrassed to be seen with her parents at the mall.

As if we’re kids from a 1990s TV commercial, who hawk some breakfast cereal while Parents Just Don’t Get It.

Plot twist: sometimes our cringing cynicism about the Christian cultural Thing is what’s really immature, not the Thing itself.

So even in these little, random-memory ways, let’s show charity to other Christians (including older generations!). Let’s appreciate their attempts as products of their time, and/or our times. Let’s put away childish cynicism, and grow up.

  1. Wikipedia informs us that Moody Bible Institute actually made the “Ranger Bill” program in the 1950s. Even then, it sounded like it could have been a series from thirty twenty years before. (Note: Footnote amended per the opinion of a friend with more radio-drama savvy than I.)

Should Christian Abuse Victims Automatically ‘Forgive’ Offenders?

Must Christians forgive unrepentant sexual abusers? No, and to claim otherwise demeans God’s justice.
| Feb 18, 2019 | 1 comment |

What stories do God’s people accidentally believe about the responsibilities of Christian abuse victims?

Unfortunately, many of these often-unspoken “stories” are based on false assumptions and and false doctrines.

Under false assumptions, we might list, “Sexual/power abuse isn’t a problem in (non-Catholic) churches.”

Under false doctrines, we might list, “Christian abuse victims ought automatically to ‘forgive’ their offenders.”

Either of these wounds Christ’s people and makes Christian abuse victims suffer all over again.

The false assumption is, at best, naive. But when Christian leaders utter that false teaching, they—despite any good intentions—make a mockery of God’s justice.

Even if the offenders have not repented and will not repent.

Even if it means the offenders will go on to abuse others.

And yes, even if it means the church covers up the offense and will not follow civil law.

False ‘forgiveness’

Of course, Christians have spent much blog-ink about the Houston Chronicle series about the latest such rash of abuses, cover-ups, and ignorance. Christian leaders have come forward and (rightfully) indicated their previous naivete, and failures, about this problem. Others talk about the challenges of particular church organizations, or the possible need to share more news about sex offenders who attempt “ministry.”

But when I read the first article, its repetition of the term “forgive” kept leaping out to me.

In all, since 1998, roughly 380 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers have faced allegations of sexual misconduct, the newspapers found. That includes those who were convicted, credibly accused and successfully sued, and those who confessed or resigned. More of them worked in Texas than in any other state.1

They left behind more than 700 victims, many of them shunned by their churches, left to themselves to rebuild their lives. Some were urged to forgive their abusers or to get abortions.2

[Abuse victim David] Pittman won’t soon forgive those who have offered prayers but taken no action. He only recently stopped hating God.3

When [abuse victim Debbie] Vasquez became pregnant, she said, leaders of her church forced her to stand in front of the congregation and ask for forgiveness without saying who had fathered the child.4

“Forgiveness is up to you alone,” general counsel Derek Gaubatz wrote in one 2007 email. “It involves a decision by you to forgive the other person of the wrongs done to you, just as Christ has forgiven you.”5

Christians can’t put sexual abuse in the same moral category as, say, a dispute between marriage partners over who keeps failing to take out the trash. Such a phrase as “just forgive him,” even with gospel repetition, is unacceptably naive.
 
In fact, Christians who repeat such slogans may actually prevent the possibility of real repentance and forgiveness.
 
Real, biblical forgiveness is like non-abusive sexual intercourse. Even secular law affirms the morality of requiring two people to consent to sex. So it requires two people to consent to forgiveness. That means, in a situation of abuse, the offender must repent. And real repentance means the offender must face civil and other consequences for this evil.

Christians must be careful how we define ‘forgiveness.’6

Here I must be very careful. I’ll also acknowledge that early feedback to this article included hearty disagreement with this concept. I’ll choose to proceed this way.

When Christian A accuses Christian B of abuse, others often give two responses.

Response One (Vengeance) says, “What an evil person. Never forgive him.” Some Christians may imply that the accused is outside God’s grace, or will go to Hell. (Pagans—or Christians who behave like pagans—do even worse then they gather and say things like, “Let’s ruin the accused person’s career and send him death threats over Twitter.”)

Response Two (Cheap Grace) says, “You need to forgive him immediately. Then you act like the sin never happened. This is because ‘love keeps no record of wrongs,’ and also, ‘Jesus said to forgive anyone seventy times seven.’ To do otherwise denies grace.”

I suggest that both these responses show extreme notions of cheap condemnation or cheap grace. Both responses also fail to capture the complexity of the biblical picture.

This fact also further complicate the picture: Christians often use the word “forgiveness” as a shorthand to describe several biblical concepts. These include the concepts of:

  1. Fighting the urge to become bitter or resentful;
  2. Fighting the urge to slander and take revenge on the offender;
  3. Reflecting that God in his grace has saved us from the chiefmost offense of prideful idolatry against him;
  4. Overlooking the offense of a brother, which means someone (perhaps a family member) in otherwise good relationship with us, who has a besetting sin that he’s already fighting
  5. Leaving the offense to God (Romans 12:19) and trusting him to avenge the wrong.

Here is a hard yet biblical saying: If victims of sinful abuse don’t want anything to do with these biblical ideas, then they’re in the wrong. They must consider “forgiving” this abuse, and healing to a point of wanting to offer this forgiveness. There is no room for the Christian to harbor resentment and choose the way of vengeance, either against an abusive nonbeliever or a believer who falls into abusiveness.7

Therefore, insisting “I’ll never forgive him” is not an option for the Christian. People who have stated this may fall to the Dark Side very quickly. According to Jesus, they imperil their own claim to live in light of God’s forgiveness of them (Matt. 6: 14–15).

Real forgiveness requires repentance—as God requires from us.

Recommended in case you have ever needed to ask or give forgiveness.

However, I do not believe that Christians should use the word “forgiveness” to refer to this biblical choice of rejecting vengeance and only wanting to forgive offenders. I don’t say this only because the word “forgive” has been used so often, along with “… and forget,” to silence victims and make them feel terrible for being wounded. I say this because biblically, the word forgiveness describes, as Chris Brauns says:

a commitment by the offended to pardon graciously the repentant from moral liability and to be reconciled to that person, although not all consequences are necessarily eliminated.8

Among Christians, this real forgiveness is always a mutual arrangement between offender and victim. And it will always leads to actual reconciliation, if not in the present day, then in the future after Jesus returns to make all things new.

Scripture, however, never calls us to “forgive” a person who has not repented.

This does not contradict Christ’s insistence that we forgive our brothers “seventy-seven times,” that is, offering unlimited forgiveness. (Most recall Christ’s words from Matt. 18: 21–22, but see the parallel text in Luke 17: 3–4, in which it’s clear Jesus is talking about situations in which the offending brother is first offering repentance.)

Nor does this contradict the Bible’s assurance—which many Christians believe—that any Christian is eternally secure. God’s word assures us that “no one can snatch” someone out of Christ’s hand (John 10: 28–29). Yes, that’s true, and yet we cannot ignore biblical warnings such as “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (1 John 3: 8–9). The Bible also teaches that real faith will inevitably show the fruit of good works (Eph. 2: 8–10), and that people who have “tasted the heavenly gift” can fall away (Hebrews 6: 4–8). Such warnings are part of the way God corrects and preserves his people, and cheap grace would get in the way of that.

In fact, this is affirmed by the very biblical teaching that God himself does not forgive people who do not repent. Hell is not full of forgiven people who simply refused to repent after God forgave them. (The very fact that Jesus said the Father will not forgive people who don’t forgive [Matt. 6: 14–15] shows that God does not forgive everyone—and that no Christian is outside God’s warnings about holiness.)

This is also affirmed by biblical teachings that reflect human frustration with power-abusers who get away with it. See the imprecatory Psalms, or Revelation 6:10:

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”9

We can’t forgive unrepentant abusers; instead, we ‘leave it to the wrath of God.’

Yes, Scripture calls on us to be willing to forgive and to love our enemies. But loving enemies does not mean we gloss over their pattern of offenses against others, or even ourselves. By God’s standards (and often by the civil-law standards of our own regions, which I haven’t even touched on in this piece) we must confront the behavior. And if the person does not repent, we cannot (yet) properly forgive him.

Every time I contend for this view, someone presumes I’m automatically excusing grudges or bitterness, or justifying the person who abuses this truth to withhold a willingness to forgive an enemy. Not so. I’m simply saying we ought to use words properly, as God does.

And God has given us a great phrase to use for what we mean by “letting go of the offense.”

Instead of the word forgiveness (which, again, means an exchange between two willing parties), Paul says leave it. But finish the apostle Paul’s sentence: “Leave it to the wrath of God” (Romans 12:19). He does not say this is merely a feeling, or even a personal choice. He says this is based on the entirely practical truth that we trust God as the avenger. If your enemy is a Christian who refused to repent, God will discipline him. If your enemy turns out to have been a fake Christian, God will avenge the wrong and punish this enemy for eternity.

"Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19, KJV).

“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19, KJV).

If I’ve been abused, I ought to want to forgive the abuser as soon as possible. But this is not simply a case of offense between brothers, spouses, or church members. Instead, this is a case of egregious sin, when one professing Christian for years has shown a pattern of acting more like the devil than like a true follower of Jesus.

At the very least, such a person needs to demonstrate true willingness to repent, which will require facing consequences (including potential loss of leadership positions and careers).10 The rewards, however, will be great indeed. He will have received real forgiveness (all the better if it’s nearly instant) from the persons he has wronged. That pattern of sin will no longer interfere with his relationship with God and claim to faith.

In any case, victims of abuse, and those who love them, must cling to the gospel, in which Jesus forgives people who repent. Don’t let people imply you must be more spiritual than God. But pray hard and train hard so you can forgive the offender as soon as possible. Meanwhile, try to leave it—the offense—to God, and find healing not through fake “forgiveness” but because you know the chief Avenger.

  1. Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco. “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms,” The Houston Chronicle, Feb. 10, 2019.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. This article’s remainder is echoed from the section “Reconsider whether victims must forgive the accused” from my article “Twelve Responses to Abuse Accusations in Christian Conferences, part 1,” Speculative Faith, Sept. 21, 2018.
  7. Remember that many of our most famous fantastical stories intentionally warn us against the dangers of vengeance, which will inevitably lead us to the Dark Side.
  8. Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness, page 72. For more about biblical forgiveness, and its differences from common “therapeutic” notions of forgiveness, Brauns’s book is an excellent resource. Pastor and author Kevin DeYoung also summarizes this book, with Brauns, in this free article.
  9. Revelation 6:10. Note that these saints are in heaven, unable to sin, and yet they carry a fierce and holy desire for God to avenge their own deaths. No one is insisting these Christians forgive their offenders.
  10. Half-apologies, or apologies for single offenses when the abuser has actually committed a pattern of grooming and other nasty actions, don’t count. Crucial here is the role of the local church to whom the offender ought to be held accountable. Of course, many churches have no idea how to handle this, and some have enabled abusive leaders. But all this is even messier without churches.

Little, Peddling Magicians Can Awaken Satanic Tyranny

Uncle Andrew believes his “destiny” frees him from “all rules,” just like many of today’s political leaders.
| Feb 15, 2019 | No comments |

Recently a newbie political leader’s words reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s most famous wicked magicians.

I’ll try to stay apolitical here. Going forward, we can presume the usual disclaimers. Such as, “leaders on every side do this.” And, “Although this is one example, at least she’s being honest. Other leaders think exactly like this, but deceptively keep this ‘standard’ to themselves.”

Which wicked choice is least terrible? Brazenly promote hypocrisy? Or pretend to be consistent and at least reinforce that social standard?

Here’s the quote:

I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct then about being morally right. 1

When I heard this again,2 of the left, openly embraced. And in this case, openly advocated by the single most celebrated, newly elected member of the government who is representing that Democratic Left.] I immediately thought of Lewis’s sixth Narnia chronicle, the prequel The Magician’s Nephew. In this story, a villain remarks:

“How should you understand reasons of State? You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny.”3

Of course, these are the words of Jadis. Later she’s known more popularly as the White Witch. But here this tyrant explains why she had the right to learn a dark spell and destroy her whole world, including all its people.

But I actually would not compare today’s flippant political figures with Jadis.

Not to be too nasty, but such comparisons give the political figures too much credit.

Uncle Andrew’s peddling magic

Instead I would compare some of these leaders with another Magician’s Nephew villain: young hero Digory Kirke’s meddling magician uncle, Andrew. Three chapters earlier, he utters much the same excuse as Jadis:

“Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”4

What’s the difference between them?

Jadis, ancient queen of a land she destroyed, is a dark and spiritual threat. Her influence is more Satanic than human. Indeed, as we learn in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, she herself hasn’t got any human blood in her. She also is completely serious. Jadis moves with a weight befitting her corrupted royalty. Hers is same kind of dark-matter, spiritual weight that, as G. K. Chesterton said, compelled Satan to fall “through force of gravity.”5

Uncle Andrew, however, is still somewhat human. At first, Lewis as narrator compared his arrival “like a stage-play demon coming out of a trap door.” Andrew does remain a heavy threat through the first few chapters. But when Jadis is magicked into London, Andrew suddenly appears “like a shrimp” compared with her. She grabs him, stares into his face searching for a spiritual “mark,” and declares:

“I see . . . you are a Magician—of a sort. . . .

“How did you come to know Magic? You are not of royal blood, I’ll swear. . . .

“Peace. . . . I see what you are. You are a little, peddling Magician who works by rules and books. There is no real Magic in your blood and heart.”6

Later, Lewis doesn’t keep narrative distance from Andrew as he does with Jadis. Instead, we go into a closet with Andrew. There he drinks from his stashed-away bottle of brandy and stupidly persuades himself that this evil queen from another world actually fancies him. As Jadis rampages in London and Andrew’s foolishness is further exposed, he becomes not as much an evil figure as a stupid and tragic one.

Andrew’s folly compounds as we follow him. Even in “the land of youth”—the newly created realm of Narnia—the “little, peddling Magician” ignores the good magic all around him. (It’s magic from Narnia’s creator, Aslan, that Jadis understands and hates.) Eventually, he ends up surrounded by talking beasts—whom he’s convinced aren’t talking. For their part, they can’t decide if he’s plant or animal. In their view, he certainly can’t be a human. Finally they become convinced he’s an animal. With good intentions, they stow him within a rudimentary cage and pelt him with all their favorite foods.

Having behaved inhumanly, Andrew is (temporarily) stripped of his humanity. (He’s very similar to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.)

Uncle Andrew’s materialist magic

Elsewhere I’ve argued that in fact, Andrew likely represents the “materialist magician.” Lewis referred to this type of person in The Screwtape Letters. In the demon Screwtape’s words, the “materialist magician” blends the best of both wicked worlds. He combines the barren atheism of materialism and the mystical corruption of magician.

Don’t these two false religions conflict? Not for the materialist magician. He or she dabbles in both corruptions at once, “not using, but veritably worshipping what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’ . . .”7

Still, the story doesn’t leave Uncle Andrew in his pathetic state. His nephew Digory and Digory’s friend, Polly, both show him pity. So does Aslan, who gives Andrew, “this old sinner,” the only gift left to him: sleep, with its temporary separation “from all the torments you have devised for yourself.”8

Uncle Andrew’s redemption from magic

I put most foolish political leaders, with their self-made hypocrisies in this category. They’re not often so much like Jadis. Often they’re more like Uncle Andrew. They are “little, peddling Magicians.” They dabble in strange notions and insipid, feelings-based “morality.” Sometimes they do this just because they can. Other times they’re chasing that power rush and image of greatness, which leads them not into flourishing humanity, but into the irrationality and impulses of non-talking beasts.

Thank God, this does not leave the meddling magician without hope.

By The Magician’s Nephew’s finale, Uncle Andrew has not quite been redeemed. But he has at least been re-humanized:

Uncle Andrew never tried magic again as long as he lived. He had learned his lesson, and in his old age he became a nicer and less selfish old man than he had ever been before.9

For my part, I’m happy with this quasi-redemption of the old sinner. But does that mean we need not react to such persons as a serious threat? Not at all. After all, it required supernatural intervention—from a perfectly wise Savior-figure—to make Uncle Andrew “learn his lesson.” Even then, as Aslan says, “evil will come from that evil.”10 Even a foolish, meddling magician, in his or her idiocy, can bring a Satanic tyrant into our world.

  1. Aaron Blake, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s very bad defense of her falsehoods,” The Washington Post, Jan. 7, 2019.
  2. Albert Mohler in his Feb. 14 podcast of “The Briefing” remarks, “Wait just a minute. That’s astounding. Here you have a newly elected member of Congress saying, ‘When I make my arguments, I’m going to say whatever facts I want because I’m morally right. I can use whatever arguments are convenient because I’m right, morally.’ . . . That kind of logic can be found to be sure in some form on the right and the left somewhere in the politics of the world. But it increasingly is becoming a principal [sic
  3. Lewis, C. S. The Magician’s Nephew (pages 67–68). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  4. Ibid, page 21.
  5. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.
  6. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, pages 77–78.
  7. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.
  8. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, page 185.
  9. Ibid, page 202.
  10. In the story, Digory is chiefly responsible because he surrendered to temptation and awakened the Witch. But his Uncle Andrew also had his part bringing in this evil to London and then Narnia.

‘The Screwtape Letters’ Quotes about Christian Social Activism

“If we can keep men asking … ‘Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.”
| Feb 14, 2019 | No comments |

Pretty much all of C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters is ridiculously quotable.

Yet these Screwtape Letters quotes uniquely apply to Christians who want to do good works in the world.

As usual, with long-paragraph book quotes, I’ve occasionally added extra paragraph breaks.

The Screwtape Letters

Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.

The Screwtape Letters

The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?

Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. . . .

As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.

The Screwtape Letters

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is in the least danger, and fix its approval on the virtue that is nearest the vice which we are trying to make endemic.

The game is to have them all running around with fire extinguishers whenever there’s a flood; and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already gunwale under.

If I find more Screwtape Letters quotes about Christian social action, I’ll add them.

The Bible’s Most Boring Chapter?

All Scripture is God-breathed, yet Numbers 7 is still one of the most aesthetically dull parts of the Bible.
| Feb 13, 2019 | No comments |

Leviticus gets a bad rap as Scripture’s most boring book, especially when the Bible’s most boring chapter of all time arrives just one book later.

You see, Leviticus, for all its seeming aesthetic faults, is at least delightfully weird (on first reading). It has blood, guts, bloody guts, and lots of sacrificing and sex. Leviticus also offers pleasant variety and organization at the same time. It follows a symmetrical pattern about rituals, sacrifices, and priests, with Day of Atonement details in the center (chapters 16 through 17).1 If you tire of priestly ordainment policy, just wait for the next chapter for plenty of intriguing sex laws.

After Leviticus comes Numbers. Somehow I had recalled that Numbers is like a lower-budget sequel to Exodus. It offers a few more miracles, social tensions, and rebellions. It even has an outbreak of blankety-blank snakes on a blankety-blank desert plain.

Well, Numbers has those things. First you must get through a lot of seemingly random legal and historical addenda. This includes Numbers chapter 7. Which offers a fastidious account of who gave what for the first Tabernacle.

This was the template for seven the chapter of Numbers:

On the [ordinal number] day [X] the son of [Y], the chief of the people of [Z]: his offering was one silver plate whose weight was 130 shekels, one silver basin of 70 shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering; one golden dish of 10 shekels, full of incense; one bull from the herd, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering; one male goat for a sin offering; and for the sacrifice of peace offerings, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old. This was the offering of [X] the son of [Y].

Repeat 12x. Really.

And people claim that modern praise-and-worship choruses are repetitive.

Seriously, I understand why Scripture offers these details—even repeated, over and over, in an age when scribe time and resources were strictly limited. God is still establishing his chosen people, Israel, as a nation. All these minutiae, no matter how trifling, will matter to their descendants. Especially when it comes to facts like which tribe gave what for the Tabernacle. Best I can tell here, every tribe gave the exact same resources. Which, on first reading, indicates two very important truths:

  • Every detail about the formation of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place on Earth, matters a great deal.
  • No tribe descendant of the future could claim some special spirituality; every tribe gave the same stuff.

The ESV Study Bible notes:

The exact repetition of the donations of each tribe underlines that all the tribes were equally committed to supporting the tabernacle. It is also noteworthy that, as in chs. 1–4, the tribe of Judah takes the lead (see notes on 1:26–27; 2:1–34).

Still, even in the book of Leviticus, I’ve not yet found an aesthetically duller portion of Scripture. Maybe next time, I shan’t try to read it aloud.

  1. My wife and I are following The Bible Project app and reading plan through the whole Bible in a year. Their animated intros to biblical books and themes are top-notch. We found the Leviticus intro video very helpful to getting you almost psyched for the book.

Christian Movies Will Get Better When Audiences Seriously Demand Them

Today’s audiences are fine with cheesy Christian movies. That will change.
| Feb 12, 2019 | 5 comments |

Last month I asked, Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad? Author and screenwriter Sean Paul Murphy answered. In short, his answer seems to be, “Usually.”

But Murphy raised a lot more questions and answers, for which my original article didn’t have space.1

You should read Murphy’s insider’s view. Read it especially if you’ve been one of those snarky Christians. You know who you are—the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if all those cheesy Christian movie-makers are doing it on purpose. Or the kind of person who thinks or speaks as if things will get better if cheesy Christian movie-makers just start making better movies.

I say ‘amen’ to Murphy’s insider view.

Murphy touches on several truths that I can get behind without qualification. Among the myths he busts (my paraphrasing):

‘Non-Christian movies are so much better than Christian-made movies’?

Nonsense. You only hear more about great non-Christian-made movies because there are so many of them. That yields more chances for the good ones to get really good and/or popular.

Numerically, terrible movies by non-Christians outpace Christian-made movies by factors of hundreds.

‘Christians mean to make subpar movies and don’t care about growing’?

Nonsense again. As Murphy repeats, creators like Alex Kendrick and Dallas Jenkins both humbly concede earlier “cheesy” moments. They are very transparent about their earlier not-so-great work. And they directly state they aim to get better.

‘Christian movies would be better if they had higher budgets’?

This is more of an implication I find in some other Christians’ snarky reviews of evangelical-marketed movies. In other words, maybe we just need to allocate several million dollars to use solely for making Christian movies. But as Murphy says:

One thing that always infuriates me is when filmmakers say their movies aren’t good because they didn’t have a big enough budget. Hey, if you chose to tell a story that you didn’t have the money to adequately tell, it’s not a budget problem. It is an error in judgement by the producer. Period! I didn’t hear the directors of The Blair Witch Project crying about their budget. I didn’t hear Kevin Smith crying about the budget of Clerks. Or Jim Jarmusch about Stranger Than Paradise. Or Whit Stillman about Metropolitan. Or Robert Rodriguez about El Mariachi. One of my favorite sci-fi films is Primer. Shooting budget: $7,000. Those filmmakers made up for their lack of budget with talent and imagination. I don’t think it’s too much to ask Christian filmmakers to do the same.2

Does quality matter in Christian films?

Murphy suggests I ignored this question in my original article. That’s true of this particular article. However, I have explored the quality question in other articles:

Click for the complete series.

That last series is so far my “magnum opus” on this topic. But I wrote it to challenge not just Christian movie critics but their fans, all at once. That’s because, apparently like Murphy, I don’t primarily blame the filmmakers or producers for making cheesy movies.

We must be more charitable than that, while also recognizing pure capitalistic fact.

Producers and directors wouldn’t make the cheesy movies if Christian audiences did not really want them.

Read Murphy’s insider view. I’d venture he shares the frustrations of many Christian creatives who are restricted by plain market forces:

The main reason why there are so many bad Christian films is because the core audience doesn’t demand quality filmmaking. Only a reassuring message. If we want good movies, we have to stop supporting the bad ones, regardless of how well-meaning they are. It’s that simple. Really. The future of Christian films is in your hands, dear viewer!3

Problem: Christians who hate-watch Christian movies aren’t helping much.

Unfortunately, some Christians who are most likely to demand better movies are giving up too early.

Many of these potential viewers are younger Christians. They are more savvy with popular culture. Some write off the whole concept of “Christians making movies with overt Christian themes.” Within this group, some critics seem to assume a notion similar to evangelical cheesy-movie defenders: that the chief purpose of Christian-made movies is to “minister” to people. They only disagree on how the movies ought to do this, or what kind of people the movies ought to reach. They neglect one plain reality: that the Church does need its own “subcultures,” including movies.4

Honestly, some other Christian movie critics take the same stereotypical attitude of an older Christian. This is the kind of person who would forbid his children from seeing secular PG-13 movies “because actors say too many bad words.” Christian movie critics apply this same “sin counting” approach to Christian movies. In effect they claim, “No, you can’t support those, because they have too many cheesy moments.”

Once upon a time, most of the big movies were made by Big Hollywood. Evangelicals would see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with Big Hollywood.

And the evangelicals would not actually try to make any of the big movies themselves.

Today, some of the (relatively) big movies are made by Christians. Other Christians see them sometimes, but usually condemn everything wrong with the Christian movie-makers.

And most Christian movie critics do not actually try to make the big movies themselves.

So—are critics incidentally turning into little but a complaining counter-culture? Are they vulnerable to the charge of, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”?5

Solution: instead, teach other Christian movie viewers to demand more.

Well, from what I read here, I like Sean Paul Murphy’s way of doing it.

I like some of directors Alex Kendrick’s and Dallas Jenkins’s way of doing it. And I suspect that I’ll like their way even better in the future.

Until that time, I’ll keep giving these directors second (third, fourth, fifth …) chances.

I’ll keep supporting “Christian movies” as a concept.

And I’ll try to avoid being so silly as to suggest anything like this: that Christian movie-makers ought to make their own jobs even harder, by making movies that the majority of their evangelical audiences simply don’t want. At least, don’t want yet.

Instead, my solution: get out there, and winsomely show my Christian friends why they should modify their Christian-movie wish list.

Then the market will slowly shift. Then emboldened creatives will step up their game. Producers will support them. Audiences will reward them. That will encourage other creatives, directors, producers—and the cycle will just keep going.

It’s already happened with the superhero genres.

But the changes don’t start with the story creators. These changes must start with the fans.

  1. I would describe my view on Christian movies as pessimistically optimistic. This is reflected in my other recent article, Christian Movies Started Terrible, But Can Improve Like Any Other Genre.
  2. Sean Paul Murphy, “Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?” (same title as my article), SeanPaulMurphyVille.Blogspot.com, Feb. 1, 2019.
  3. Ibid.
  4. I summarize this point in Seven More Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans (Speculative Faith, Sept. 10, 2015). It’s actually somewhat naive to presume that independent creative Christians can simply skip over our thriving Christian/church subcultures and “make a difference” in secular creative fields. This goes double if the creative seems to believe the chief purpose of story-making is “evangelism,” rather than “glorify God in all that you do.”
  5. Seven Final Challenges For Christian Movie Critics and Fans, Speculative Faith, Sept. 17, 2015.

In Which A Snack Cakes Twitter Feed Shames the Folly of Fandom War

@LittleDebbie wisdom: “People act as if they have to hate one thing in order to remain loyal to the other.”
| Feb 11, 2019 | No comments |

Somebody tried to start another fandom war on Twitter. And, no joke, the account for @LittleDebbie responded with the wisdom of a sage.

This question comes from DC writer Gail Simone, who asked:

Apparently Simone did this with several brand-name accounts, such as the famous @Wendys account.

But as the account of a must-not-be-named restaurant chain later suggested, “You might be little, Debbie, but you’re wise beyond your years.”

(I’d award double points solely for the classy use of the semicolon.)

Marvel vs. DC, Star Wars vs. Star Trek—sure, it’s fun to fake “pit” these story franchises in fictional fights.

But as (believe it or not) the seller of starchy snacks further added:

C. S. Lewis on the Religion of Star Wars

C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity describes “only a blind force, with no morals and no mind . . .”
| Feb 8, 2019 | No comments |

C. S. Lewis’s full (verified!) quote comes from Mere Christianity:

When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

"When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries ..."

Let’s Start a Club for Writers!

Question: “How can we sell more excellent and popular Christian fiction?”
| Feb 7, 2019 | No comments |

Not really. I am only joshing.1

  1. For my part, I’d prefer starting a club that’s the best of both worlds. But so far, time does not permit.

Christian Creators Can’t Easily Bypass ‘Christian Markets’ for Secular Markets

If “Christian markets” are too steep a hill to scale, imagine trying to leap over the secular market mountains.
| Feb 6, 2019 | 5 comments |

In my Monday story, “Amelie Wen Zhao’s Critics Enforce New Fantasy Legalism,” I left an opening when I mentioned this about Christian markets:

Ever heard or believed the notion that we ought not have “Christian fiction,” but just Christians writing fiction?

I actually disagree with this statement. In this SpecFaith article, I share a few reasons why. But here’s another reason: Progressivist zealots will just keep waging their moral, godless-religious crusade against fantasy books. So Christians will need our own stories, now more than ever.

Well, technically I did cover the opening. I included that link to a previous article.

But some readers still thought I was saying something like this: Well, because secular fiction is so wicked and dangerous, we ought to retreat. Let’s go back to the simpler (and less “social justice”-prone) Christian fiction bubble. (And all that that implies.)

Oh, I definitely don’t agree with that either. At least, not without this qualification.

Point 1: Christian fiction and secular fiction both restrict content.

In fact, I argue that both present-day Christian fiction1 and secular fiction have religious-based content restrictions. These include:

  • “You can’t say bad words.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans swear words. (Not even if bad guys say them.) In most secular fiction, this bans racist words/ideas. (Not even if bad guys say them.)
  • “You can’t explore particular themes.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans mentions of certain doctrinal disputes, or even the existence of denominations. In most secular fiction, this bans negative views of abortion or fornication.
  • “You cannot question our fashionable religion.” In most modern Christian fiction, this bans characters who show complex doubts. (Even if the story ultimately helps resolve them.) In most secular fiction, this bans even subtle questioning of Progressivism or God’s presumed nonexistence.2

Point 2: It’s simpler to try transforming ‘Christian markets.’

Ultimately, I find the idea of truly challenging, excellent Christian fiction more attainable than the notion that most Christians can just “be really, really good at making stories” and therefore flourish in secular markets.

It does seem strange to pretend secular fiction markets will be less restrictive than Christian fiction markets. In either one, humans are going to human. Either will be religious and/or restrictive. Either will offer certain freedoms and limits.

It also seems strange to imagine that secular editors, who are not simply “neutral,” will help Christian authors flourish. In any case, the author will likely need to choose, not whether to compromise, but how to compromise. Which can you give up: bad words, or other beliefs?

But in the end, I do wonder about one last market difference. Many godly Christians work in secular media and publishing. Aside from them, which of these is simpler: 1) efforts to cure the spiritual sickness of legalism and anti-excellence notions in Christian publishing, or 2) help resurrect spiritually dead hearts of non- or anti-Christians in secular publishing?3

Christian authors can strive to do both, in whatever sphere God has called them to serve.

Point 3: It’s naive to claim ‘Christian markets are too hard, so let’s try secular markets instead.’

To be sure, our supernatural God supernaturally turns stone hearts into flesh hearts.4 He can and does accomplish either goal.

Yet in a human sense, I find it simpler to challenge Christians into better and more biblical readers.

Sure, that’s still a steep hill to climb.

But some Christians (including some aspiring Christian storytellers) presume, “Christians are too stubborn in their bad story preferences. So let’s give up. Let’s instead head for the hills of secular storytelling. Those ought to be easier to scale!”

I’m afraid such folks are in for a shock when they arrive at those secular hills.

They’ll likely find that these are actually mountains of piled-up treasure (great movies, classic songs, skillful artistry) that are mixed with equal or greater parts garbage (blasphemy, fornication, and strict legalism very similar to culturally fundamentalist Christianity).

If you’re a Christian creator, you would face all of the same human problems, like business over creativity, marketability over excellence, and plain nastiness and back-stabbing.

But you would be left with even less faith foundation to challenge any of this because you (very likely) don’t share faith with this world.

Perhaps that whole problem of “oversheltering” applies just as much to the Christian who, from a safe distance, thought that secular mountain looked small enough.

Point 4: Some Christians creators must start with the ‘Christian markets’ hill.

I’m not saying it’s impossible. But I am saying it’s naive for the Christian reader or creator to expect to leap over this mountain in a single bound—and without even having tried to train by climbing the (comparatively smaller) Christian-market hill. After all, that’s partly why we praise and support professing Christian athletes and actors for their accomplishments. Deep down, we know God has given them great gifts to accomplished much with talent and excellence, especially if they’ve resisted corruption and become more like Jesus instead.

Some Christian creators have been called to cross over into that world.

But other Christian creators, who wince at the Christian market’s steep slopes, ought not stare across the valley to that “smaller” secular market mountain in the distance. I’m probably one of those people. So as Christian creators, let’s scale the smaller hills first, and then see if God leads us to tackle the taller mountains.

Either hill you decide to climb—Godspeed to you! And please let me know how I can pray for and support you.

Ten more articles on Christian fiction vs. secular fiction:

  1. Who Wants to Kill Christian Fiction?
  2. A Call for Deeply Real Christian Fiction
  3. How to Be a Silly Christian Fiction Critic
  4. Stop Hating on Christian Popular Culture
  5. Eight Actions to Resurrect Christian Fiction
  6. How To Fix Christian Fiction: More Christianity
  7. Is Secular Fiction Better Than Christian Fiction?
  8. Why Does Christian Romance Outsell Christian Fantasy?
  9. 95 Theses for Christian Fiction Reformation (four-part series)
  10. ‘Christian Fiction’ Vs. ‘Christians Writing Fiction’? We Need Both
  1. As always, I prefer using the term “Christian fiction” to describe any fiction (creative work) created by a Christian (person, not thing). Most people, however, understand “Christian fiction” to describe things, and in a mass market. So here I’m using the term that way.
  2. This is a condensed version of the points in my Speculative Faith article “Is Secular Fiction Better Than Christian Fiction?
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ezekiel 36:26.